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A secret menu... how this Co Antrim supper club is winning fans

This week, we talk to a gardener and chef who are creating culinary delights, meet ...


Rob Curley and Frank McCooke of the Slemish Market Supper Club kitchen

Rob Curley and Frank McCooke of the Slemish Market Supper Club kitchen

Rob Curley and Frank McCooke of the Slemish Market Supper Club kitchen

Food miles matter more than ever to consumers - so when a Co Antrim chef got together with a nearby gardener, the resulting project was bound to whet diners' appetites.

Ballymena chef Rob Curley teamed up with the Slemish Market Garden in the Ecos Centre in Ballymena to create the Slemish Market Supper Club.

It's a dynamic monthly dining club where diners are surprised by an ever-changing menu based around whatever ingredients are ready in the garden.

And the word has now spread far and wide, with the club a contender for Best Private and Club Dining award at the Irish Restaurant Association Awards All-Ireland final on May 8.

The Slemish Market Supper Club kitchen is based just a few hundred metres from the market garden where all of the fruit and vegetables are grown.

Every seed is planted by hand by gardener Frank McCooke (60) and his son Matthew (33), who is a partner in the business.

Founder Rob Curley explained that the club attracts people who want to be close to the source of their food and who want to hear the gardener and chef talk about what's on their plates and how it was grown.

"There is nothing like this out there - guests coming to the supper club don't know what's on the menu until Frank and I get up at the beginning of the evening to talk the guests through the ingredients used and what dishes they will be eating," he said.

"It's totally a joint effort to create a surprise six-course menu comprising of a drink, a wee bite, a starter, a fish course, a meat course and dessert.

"The bespoke menu changes every time according to what is seasonal. The market garden is literally over the hedge from me.

"If it's raining I pop over on the bike and if it's dry we talk over the hedge quite a lot.

"At the start of every season Frank and I talk about what is grown for the season ahead and then I think about what dishes I can create.

"Then I know to source salmon, trout, duck, game and goat - all from the Glens of Antrim where possible."

Even the plates Rob serves the food on are sourced locally and sustainably, and were made from wood from Ballymena and Glenariffe using trees which had to be cut down due to the ash dieback disease.

The supper club has won critical acclaim since it was set up. As well as being nominated in this year's awards, Rob was also named Ulster winner of the Local Food Hero award in the 2016 Irish Restaurant Association Awards.

And chef Gorka Arrieta has also invited the Slemish Market Supper Club to tell its story at the Miniature Pintxos Congress in Spain in 2018.

As well as quality produce, an emphasis is placed on quality cooking.

Rob, who is a member of Northern Ireland tourism and hospitality collective Live It Experience It, has over 20 years' experience in the restaurant trade.

His CV includes Michelin star restaurant L'Ecrivain and Shanahans On The Green in Dublin.

Rob added: "The supper clubs are near enough every month. We announce the dates on Facebook.

"The next one will be held at Follow Coffee on Greenvale Street in Ballymena on Saturday where yet another bespoke menu will be served up. It's all about food, fun and friendship."

But it's not the first time a chef and gardener have worked closely together.

Green queen Jilly Dougan and husband Simon Dougan from Portadown, Co Armagh have made a name for themselves championing Northern Ireland produce.

Jilly has set up herb gardens at Simon's Yellow Door deli and catering company as well as for some of the top hotels and restaurants in the region. Many of the venues run by Hastings Hotels Group around Northern Ireland now boast herb gardens overseen by Jilly.

Simon was awarded an MBE for his services to hospitality and catering on the New Year's Honours List.

And the Boat House restaurant in Bangor has close links with organic vegetable gardener, David Love Cameron. Mr Cameron works at the Walled Garden at Helen's Bay, where he uses his experience of growing vegetables for Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons.

Nor are supper clubs a new addition in Northern Ireland. Erin Bunting and Jo Facer run supper club The Edible Flower in Saintfield. They also hope to open an edible flower and herb garden so that guests can see the ingredients they will be eating as they arrive.

The pair used to live in London where they ran a successful supper club - the Leytonstone Brewhouse & Kitchen - before relocating to Northern Ireland.

Erin is originally from Hillsborough and worked in arts business development, before retraining as a chef at the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Co Cork. Jo also volunteers at the Walled Garden in Helen's Bay.

Belfast Telegraph